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The 11 Best Matthew McConaughey Performances: From ‘Dazed and Confused’ to ‘The Beach Bum’

"The Beach Bum" may be Matthew McConaughey's defining performance, but it's hardly the only flash of brilliance from his inimitable career.

Matthew McConaughey is surprisingly flexible for such an inimitable actor; he can play anybody, and yet there’s no one else quite like him. He’s been a Hollywood leading man for more than 20 years — starring in adventure movies, sci-fi epics, stripper masterpieces, a smattering of mostly regrettable rom-coms, and more — but he’s never really settled into a type. He can do it all, but the easygoing Austin native is at his best when it seems like he’s just being himself. In an industry that swallows actors whole and spits them out on the regular, McConaughey has survived by embracing a “just keep livin’” philosophy that makes you feel like he’s just happy to be here. And if his shaggy, self-possessed, and almost supernaturally high portrayal of Moondog in “The Beach Bum” feels like McConaughey’s defining performance (which it is, and always will be), that’s because it barely seems like he’s acting at all.

“The Beach Bum” may have bombed at the box office, but that doesn’t mean the McConnaissance is over, or that it ever really began. McConaughey has long established himself as one of the most consistently watchable stars of contemporary American cinema, and his more eccentric (read: less successful) projects only make him easier to love. For every “The Dark Tower” there’s a “Dazed and Confused.” For every “Gold,” there’s a “Mud.” For every “Bernie,” there’s a “White Boy Rick.” But all these movies — the good, the bad, and the “Serenity” — prove that McConaughey is a star in the truest sense of the word: His light comes from a strange and distant place, but it makes everything around him a whole lot brighter.

Here are the 11 best performances in a career that shows no signs of dimming anytime soon:

11. “Boys on the Side”

BOYS ON THE SIDE, Drew Barrymore, Whoopi Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, 1995. (c) Warner Bros

“Boys on the Side”

One of the only times Whoopi Goldberg actually played a lesbian, instead of just a sort of ambiguously asexual autonomous woman, is in a “Thelma and Louise”/”Fried Green Tomatoes” mash-up called “Boys on the Side.” Directed by king of the tearjerker Herb Ross in 1995, “Boys on the Side” follows a woman dying of AIDS and her last attempt at finding connection. Starring a holy trifecta of Mary-Louise Parker, Drew Barrymore, and Goldberg as a motley road-tripping trio, McConaughey makes a lasting impression in a supporting role. He plays a cop named Abe Lincoln, a lovable oaf whose devotion to the law ultimately foils the plot. Sporting a tight crew cut and his signature slack jaw obliviousness, he delivers a few choice laughs while supporting the main trio. It’s a good look. —JD

10. “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days”

“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”

Every Hollywood pretty boy eventually gets his rom-com, and it was only a matter of time before McConaughey showed his bubble gum side. What’s interesting about “How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days,” however, is that he somehow gets away with being a complete jerk for most of the movie, a skill he had been honing since “Dazed and Confused.” While it would be a stretch to say that his performance elevates the movie, it was an unexpected subversion of rom-com archetypes, and part of what makes “How to Lose a Guy” more enduring than his earlier attempt at the genre, “The Wedding Planner.” He has Kate Hudson at her pique to play off of, and these two go head to head in some very funny feats of physical comedy and classic misdirection. It’s no masterpiece, but their committed performances provide some explanation as to why this movie seems to never not be on TV. —JD

9. “The Lincoln Lawyer”

“The Lincoln Lawyer”

What happened to McConaughey in 2010? Or, more accurately, what didn’t happen to him in 2010? After the terrible (and entirely deserved) reception for 2009’s “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past” — a rancid rom-com spin on the Dickens mythos, and one so bad and so stupid that it effectively ended the actor’s love affair with chintzy date movies like “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “The Wedding Planner,” “Failure to Launch,” and “Fool’s Gold” — McConaughey didn’t belly up to another role until two years later, skipping 2010 entirely. It was a good choice, because when he returned with the sturdy legal drama “The Lincoln Lawyer,” it helped kickstart what would affectionately become known as “the McConaissance.”

While other films are perhaps more splashily associated with the term, like his Oscar-winning turn in “Dallas Buyers Club,” the seeds of McConaughey’s next big chapter are all there in the Brad Furman feature. An old-school legal offering that doesn’t balk at the dark stuff, McConaughey bridges the gap between angelic, infallible lawyer with, well, something a bit more hard-won. Any person who works out of a Town Car has certainly seen some tough times (and has secrets to spare), but McConaughey never gets cheeky with the part, playing his Mickey Haller straight as an arrow, all the better for the world to spin wildly out of control around him. —KE

8. “Contact”

“Contact”

Here’s how much Matthew McConaughey’s persona has evolved throughout his career: In “Contact,” one of the most restrained performances he’s ever given, the Oscar winner plays a Christian philosopher who debates Jodie Foster about the existence of God and offers a strangely prescient take (this was 1997, mind you) about how spending more and more time online has made us lonelier than at any other point in human history. He frames the faith-based half of the discussion in Robert Zemeckis’ sci-fi saga in gentler terms than we usually see onscreen, never making it feel like an either/or proposition that has one right answer. Palmer Joss may be the smartest person McConaughey has ever played, and it’s a testament to his abilities that he’s just as believable waxing theological as he is taking off his shirt and smoking a joint. —MN

7. “Dallas Buyers Club”

“Dallas Buyers Club”

To play Ron Woodroof, an HIV patient who in the 1980s pioneered a way to get AIDS medication to others in the Dallas area who were HIV-positive, McConaughey dropped down to 136 pounds – apparently surviving on an intake of a single piece of chicken each day, along with egg whites and Diet Coke. He also stayed indoors for six months to look as pale as possible for the role. It’s one of the most extreme cases of body transformation onscreen in recent memory, and it won him the Oscar for Best Actor in 2014. You could argue the film has problems: Woodroof was a homophobe who only started to empathize with gay and transgender people after suffering from the affliction that had ravaged the LGBTQ community – it’s an outsider’s view of an epidemic calculated for viewers who, having given little thought to the matter before, are told to suddenly ask themselves, “What would I do if I were diagnosed with HIV?” But touristic though its perspective is, you have to commend McConaughey for his commitment. —CB

6. “Magic Mike”

(L-r) MATTHEW McCONAUGHEY as Dallas and GABRIEL IGLESIAS as Tobias in Warner Bros. PicturesÕ dramatic comedy ÒMAGIC MIKE,Ó a Warner Bros. Pictures release.Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

“Magic Mike”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

Steven Soderbergh’s “Magic Mike” is the kind of movie in which every supporting character could be the star of their own movie, and that’s especially true of Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas. A former exotic dancer who now owns the hottest male strip club in all of Tampa, and rules it with an iron fist, Dallas is a greedy son of a bitch, and he would sooner throw his dancers under a bus than lose a single dollar down their banana hammocks. His predatory nature is emblematic of a film that has a crashing economy on its mind, and isn’t interested in delivering the same undiluted euphoria of its sequel.

But here’s the thing: He’s played by Matthew McConaughey. Even at the end, when he’s screwed over most of the cast, you just can’t stay mad at the guy. Not after he’s sung his heart out in a black leather vest (with matching leather cowboy hat), and allowed McConaughey to parlay his signature catchphrase of “alright alright alright” into a well-oiled mating call that’s as timeless as his raw appeal. Shredded, mischievous, and usually just on the right side of wrong, Dallas is the well-oiled embodiment of what allowed “Magic Mike” to be fun as hell without ever becoming frivolous. —DE

5. “Mud”

“Mud”

The McConaissance was working up to its full powers and potential in the summer of 2012, as the actor continued to not only choose roles that demanded something different from him, but directors who did too, the kind of creators not at all interested in his early aughts yield. After working with Linklater and Friedkin, McConaughey signed up to topline Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas drama, an eventual Palme d’Or contender with a Southern-fried premise that was consistently subverted by everyone behind and in front of the camera.

First order of business: get over any gags involving a man whose name is literally Mud. McConaughey does that handily enough, appearing as a roughshod dude with a heart of gold who gets stuck up a tree (in a boat!) and is promptly found by two charming youngsters who, of course, adore him. But Mud has plenty of secrets, nearly mythical in scope, and McConaughey’s Mud keeps the boys at an appropriate distance while he tries to work through them. He’s the world’s worst mentor, and he knows it, with the actor digging into his own perceived charms and coming out the other side with a more compelling take on what that kind of charm means, what it can do. That Nichols ended the film with an unexpectedly happy twist could have been a tricky choice, but his star sells it, if only because his performance always hints at more going on, no end in sight. —KE

4. “Dazed and Confused”

Dazed and Confused

“Dazed and Confused”

Gramercy Pictures

All right, all right, all right. Wooderson may have gotten older in the quarter-century since Richard Linklater first introduced us to the lovable burnout, but McConaughey’s performance feels ageless. The most quotable character in a film full of them, he keeps L-I-V-I-N in a way viewers continue to find endearing despite the fact that he is, in the final analysis, kind of a creep. That’s thanks to the actor behind him, who kicked off his career in this last-day-of-school comedy by making Wooderson more than just a caricature of guys who still hang out with high schoolers years after graduating. (What else is he going to do in such a small town?) —MN

3. “Bernie”

“Bernie”

McConaughey’s heroic lawyer characters in “A Time to Kill” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” gave way to utter venality in his showboating Carthage, TX, district attorney David Buck Davidson in “Bernie,” Richard Linklater’s dramatization of real-life events about a beloved local mortician (Jack Black) who confessed to the murder of an elderly woman he had befriended, and who he claimed abused him. Davidson wears almost the same glasses that McConaughey’s lawyer in “A Time to Kill” sported, but there the resemblance ends: he tries to convict Black’s Bernie through tabloid-approved appeals to his jury’s lowest common denominator prejudicial impulses. Maybe Bernie would hold onto other men’s hands a little too long after a handshake. And just why did he subscribe to Men’s Health, since he clearly wasn’t in shape? McConaughey sinks his teeth into this character with relish, gesticulating with a baseball bat and spinning a numbered wheel in front of the press to determine what local drug offender he’d be targeting next it’s the kind of role that shows that McConaughey’s been pegged as a leading man for far too long, when he really has the talent and skillset to be one of our great character actors. —CB

2. “Interstellar

“Interstellar”

McConaughey had been a movie star for more than 20 years before he got to save the world, but maybe the most visionary thing about Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” is how it gets a cosmically heroic performance out of its leading man by combining the two key parts of his screen persona: Southern-fried swagger and an alien approach to human existence. Still — on paper, anyway — Joseph Cooper doesn’t seem like a good fit for McConaughey. A farmer, engineer, and former NASA pilot with a dead wife on his conscience, the character couldn’t be further removed from the actor’s default “just keep livin’” vibe (it had been a long time since “Contact”).

But “just keep livin’” is exactly the attitude Cooper needs to harness in order to pilot a spaceship through a black hole and reach the distant planets that could be viable replacements for Earth. McConaughey is at his most stoic in the first half of the movie, playing a dad who’s trying to raise a family at the end of life as we know it. Still, the brilliance of his casting only comes into focus as the movie gets weirder; by the time “Interstellar” reaches the somewhat infamous “astral library” setpiece in the third act, McConaughey’s ability to imbue the Nolan brothers’ nonsense with his inimitable “time is a flat circle” conviction is the only thing that holds the story together. This is McConaughey simultaneously at his most serious and his most stoned, and somehow — against all odds — the results are heavenly. —DE

1. “The Beach Bum”

"The Beach Bum"

“The Beach Bum”

Neon

It is impossible to separate Moondog from McConaughey’s persona on-and-off screen. It’s less that it was the role he was born to play, but rather a cinematic playground for the actor’s essence and id to run free without concern of moral judgement or plot. Certainly there are easy parallels between Moondog’s constant substance-fueled search for fun dove-tailing nicely with the legend-making real-life story of cops finding Mr. Alright, Alright naked, high and playing the bongos at his home, but Harmony Korine’s while-Paris-burns answer to the Trump era is not simply an ode to getting high and partying. It’s a non-cynical exploration of the ambition to live a life of no ambition. Moondog is a once-noted poet who must publish his next book to access his inheritance, but his silly poetry (like McConaughey’s cosmic ramblings) is not his art. Moondog’s true art like McCanaughey at his best is living unencumbered from moment to moment, regardless of how crude, bizarre or even sometimes sad things might get. “The Beach Bum” is a 90-minute invitation to enter the actor’s altered state of conscientiousness, rather than simply be amused by it. CO

“The Beach Bum” is now playing in theaters.

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